Shenseea Isn’t Abandoning Dancehall — She’s Just Doing It All

Photo: Courtesy of Shamaal.
It’s been nearly a month since Shenseea’s full-length debut album Alpha dropped and the 25-year old artist is still on a high. In her five-year career, Shenseea has used dancehall as grounds to explore the breadth of her artistry and now, ready to take her career to new heights, she’s brought the same ethos of exploring various sounds to her new audience, but is making sure not to abandon the music roots that lead her here in the first place.
“I've been working on [Alpha] for so long,” Shenseea tells R29Unbothered over Zoom. “I was getting a lot of backlash based off the singles that I was releasing —  [fans] thought I was ditching my culture — but they listened to the album and saw that it was the complete opposite. I feel so good that they're enjoying my album to the tee,” she shares excitedly. Shenseea’s desire to experiment with her artistry has been a feature throughout her career. The writing’s been on the wall, and now that she has our attention, it’s time to start reading.
Shenseea’s first single “Jiggle Jiggle” dropped in July 2016 and was met with moderate reception, but it was her second “Loodi”, featuring dancehall behemoth Vybz Kartel, that galvanized her fans and established her as a strong force entering dancehall’s arena. The next three years under the guidance of manager Romeich Major would see the artist releasing a plethora of records that not only spoke to her capabilities of dominating dancehall— with singles like “ShenYeng Anthem”, “Trending Gyal”, “Tricka Treat” and “Pon Mi”— but also her capacity to approach new sounds with equal parts curiosity and confidence. 
Her discography until then displayed an expansive approach to creating music. Shenseea’s singjay (a term used in dancehall for an artist who combines singing and toasting) records like the Ding Dong-assisted “Rock the Floor” showcase the artist’s ability to offer a different kind of melodic delivery. The 2018 “Solo” was a display of her rap prowess and through her collaboration with Christina Agulara and Keisham on “Right Moves'', in addition to working with Trinidad’s Nailah Blackman on tracks “Baddish” and “We Ready (Champion Gyal)”, Shenseea remained testing her sound with artists across different genres.  
In 2019, she signed to an imprint at Interscope called Rich Immigrants. Created by Jamaican producer Rvssian, who saw hits as a frequent collaborator with Kartel on records like “Jeans and Fitted”, “Life Sweet” and “Look Pon We”, it facilitated an environment for Shenseea to create the way she needed to. “He didn't lock me down and say, ‘you can only do the album with me since you're signed with me.’ I was allowed to go out and explore with other producers,” she says of Rvssian’s direction. “I love that freedom. When I brought back what I've done with those producers, he might weigh in and be like, ‘you still need to keep some sort of authenticity to it’ or ‘add more to it.” Rvssian sought to explore more regional sounds and began producing for Latin American artists. As he opted in for a more fluid style with his production, he brought that same openness to guiding Shenseea’s sound.
Between Shenseea getting signed and 2021, she showcased her flexibility on songs like “IDKW” alongside Swae Lee and Young Thug, “Blessed” with Tyga and Masego’s “Silver Tongued Devil”. Her freestyles, too, have gone viral impressing audiences with her wordplay and even ability to weave between English, Jamaican Patwa and Spanish when she visited Funk Flex on HOT 97
While Shenseea  continued to focus on dancehall and delivering more melodic verses on her features, she also proved that she could expand her artistic style through a variety of different production styles. Alpha’s lead single, “Lick” featuring Megan the Stallion was a dancehall record, but her follow ups, “R U That?” ft. 21 Savage and “Deserve It” were more pop-heavy and prompted fans to question Shenseea’s new crossover strategy. Had she abandoned the genre that they were most familiar with her performing? 

“I don't think that God gave me this much talent to please one type of audience. Why just do one? I should kill the other sides of myself to please [people]? I cannot do that.”

But Shenseea is among the most recent wave of artists, alongside Spice and Skillibeng, who are bringing dancehall beyond the shores of Jamaica. Since its inception, dancehall has had its ebbs and flows in and out of pop culture. Historically, there’s been a small pool of artists from Jamaica who have been able to cross over into the mainstream market. The 80s saw artists like Shabba Ranks and Patra making an impression overseas, the 90s made way for artists like Super Cat, Mad Cobra, Diana King, Spragga Benz, Shaggy, Beenie Man, Diana King, Ini Kamoze, and Lady Saw, and the early to mid 2000s saw Sean Paul, Busy Signal, Cham and Elephant Man energizing mass audiences with dancehall’s dance culture. Not to mention, Sister Nancy’s 1982 “What A Bam Bam'' is a critically important dancehall single sampled over 100 times
In 2015 and in years to follow, dancehall’s influence reached a fever pitch. When Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” came out and the following year when Drake released “Controlla” on his album Views (especially since the first iteration of the single featured dancehall artist Popcaan) calls of appropriation were abundant, and more recently questions about who can receive accolades for performing similar genres were made. In 2018-2019, when Afrobeat began to crossover and moved from the peripherals of pop to the center, people unfortunately began to pit it against dancehall claiming it would take over its place in the pop landscape — which does little to consider that many Black diasporic music genres can co-exist at once.
Photo: Courtesy of Shamaal.
Shenseea’s career, and by extension Alpha, is illustrative of two realities. The first is that she can continue the legacy of crossover artists before her that carried dancehall into the mainstream. The second is that she is disrupting the imposed limitations on what Jamaican artists can produce. [Alpha] was merely me showing people that I don't want you to put me in a box because I can do all these things. I can do all these tones. I can do all these ranges,” she says. “It's just to showcase all the different sides of me that I love: R&B, pop, reggae, dancehall, rap. I feel like it came across exactly how I wanted it to. I hit it right on the head.”
It’s this attitude that Shenseea brought to Alpha’s creation. With a self-assured candor, she says, “I'm always gonna do what I want to do and that's why I titled the album Alpha. When it comes down to decision making, it's all me. I don't think that God gave me this much talent to please one type of audience. Why just do one? I should kill the other sides of myself to please [people]? I cannot do that.”
With Alpha, Shenseea continues her trajectory of experimentation, but indicates to her ShenYengz (the nickname for her fans), that she hasn’t forgotten the music that catapulted her to where she is now. Sean Paul and Beenie Man collaborate with the artist to create the smooth “Lying If I Call It Love” and the percussive “Henkel Glue” respectively. On the Rvssian and M.R.I.-produced “Hangover”, an acoustic guitar provides the introduction for a song about moving on from a partner. Her ballad “Sun Comes Up” is a touching record about her son while “Egocentric” is a bravado-induced declaration of independence. “Bouncy” ft. Offset and the lusty Scott Scorch-produced “Body Count” is a statement of her singjay power, and fans will recognize “Shen Ex Anthem” as the inverse of the assertive 2017 track “Shen Yeng Anthem.“ 
Despite her certainty on Alpha’s direction, it’s clear that Shenseea possesses a heightened self-awareness she shares with many Caribbean artists who must balance the musical desires of their fans back home with international demands. “Honestly, I feel like I'm superwoman at this point. I can't say it's easy pleasing two crowds,” she shares. “Keeping your core engaged while trying to grab a new audience is very hard because people sometimes are like, ‘what are you doing for the core?’, but then people on the other side are like, ‘let's see what you're about,’....[Caribbean artists] have been prepared from one culture to go on to the next.”
As is the tradition of dancehall, Shenseea allows herself to be fully immersed into her sexual power, but that’s not a feature exclusive to the genre. For people who may sideeye how dancehall has made a home for candid expressions of sexual desires and dexterity, women in rap — like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown have done in the past and contemporary artists like Megan thee Stallion, Cardi B and others continue to do — do the same. Shenseea feels like she owes zero explanation for anyone who remarks on that particular function of dancehall.
“I've been making raunchy and sexual songs ever since my debut single. It's not something that I even think to explain. I mean, who cares?” she says firmly. “I'm a woman, and in this age, women are winning, not only because of our talents, but because we exercise our sexuality and we embrace it. It's even worse now for me to be arguing with somebody about my sexual music or visuals.”
With her music, Shenseea’s goal is to take her artistry to di world. As she prepares to go on her Alpha tour, she carries all that she’s experienced, her cultural influences, and her personal aspirations along the way. And she’s doing it at her own pace.
“I want all my supporters to grow with me and that is why I say I wouldn't change anything. I don't want to just come on the scene and, boom, be the biggest thing in the world. I want people to know my story,” she says. “For people to know my story and see how long I've been doing this, the obstacles that I've faced over the years and what I've done to overcome them is so much more meaningful.”
Shenseea’s journey has not been without valleys but she stands on the hills of optimism: “I wouldn't change a thing. The good and the bad is the only reason I'm here. I could be further if I did something different or I could be way back. The point is, I'm happy to be where I am. Right at this moment.”

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